Growing up on a farm in ‘midest’ mid Ulster during the 1970s, luxuries were few and far between.
Food was plain and meals perfunctory.
My mother, not blessed with culinary skills, rotated a few set dishes - potatoes, cabbage and bacon; potatoes and tinned beans with small spongy curiosities masquerading as sausages; potatoes and vegetable roll (a misnomer if ever there was one, as there wasn’t a trace of vegetables in said vegetable roll); and her personal favourite, potatoes and tinned meat balls in a gloopy gravy.
Occasionally she would attempt a recipe from Woman’s Weekly, which would invariably go horribly wrong. But there was always packet food to fall back on; Vesta Curries, Angel Delight, and Smash - the freeze-dried potato substance advertised on TV by a group of laughing Martian robots which scared the life out of me.
Then later came Findus Crispy Pancakes, a convenient delicacy the likes of which the good folk of our small parish had never seen before. They were scrumptious. Still are.
It’s quite hard to believe that just a generation ago we were living in a world that was not only without computers and mobile phones - but it was also a world without yoghurt.
I remember the first time I saw a tub of Ski in our local shop - ‘‘can we get some yooo-gurt?’’I remember asking my mother, unsure how to pronounce this exotic new food.
‘‘No, I don’t trust that stuff,’’ she said. And that was that. I was stuck with cold tinned custard and pineapple rings.
But nothing conjures up the bittersweet memories of childhood more keenly than the often vanished confectionery of yesteryear.
There were Spangles, translucent sugar squares in butterscotch, ‘Old English’, cola and dozens more varieties; Nutty bars, scrumptious knobbly chocolate logs, and Pacers, ah, Pacers. These white slabs of minty gorgeousness with green go-faster stripes were my personal favourite - never mind that they tasted like sweet toothpaste and had a similar consistency.
Then there Opal Fruits, now incomprehensibly called Starbust; Funny Feet, a self-consciously wacky dollop of moulded strawberry ice cream; Golden Nuggets that came in a little pouch; and Kola Cubes, which it was impossible to eat without grating the skin off the top of your soft palate.
Black Jacks were, along with Fruit Salad and Flying Saucers, a sticky stalwart of the 10p mix-up bag.
I loved the stiflingly perfumed Parma Violets, despite their soapy aftertaste and whiff of old lady; and the equally perfumed and nearly impossible to chew, Cherry Lips.
In the un-PC 1970s, we liked to ‘puff’ on sweetie cigarettes, and risk dental cavities on scarcely manageable gobstoppers and leathery Wine Gums. We supped Creamola Foam, a lurid glistening powder which when added to water created a hyperactively sweet drink, and gulped gallons of green lemonade.
I loved Sherbet Dip Dabs, running out of the shop to open them in the back seat of our Hillman Hunter and spilling the powdery contents all over my good corduroy trousers and scratchy polo neck.
And I adored radioactively-coloured Wham Bars and Refreshers (“the fizz that gives you whizz”), and liquorice bootlaces, space dust, and Bazooka bubble gum.
Then there were the crisps like Ringos, Tudor and King’s Crisps, which our bread man delivered every Saturday along with the aforementioned Woman’s Weekly and my copy of Twinkle.
Some sweets from my childhood are still around, of course, like sherbet lemons and chocolate limes, jelly babies and pear drops, aniseed balls, rainbow drops, Love Hearts, barley sugar and clove rock. The latter I always associate with an aged, toothless great aunt who sucked on them constantly and would offer me one from her housecoat, and which usually had a bit of old tissue sticking to it.
But what have largely disappeared are the sweetie shops with the tinkling bell as you push opened the door and their tantalising array of shining glass jars crammed with multicoloured delights. And the tabard-wearing lady of a certain age who weighed out your sweets, which clattered satisfyingly into the metal scoop of the scales before being adroitly bagged up and swiftly closed with a twist.
For Roald Dahl, the sweet shop was “the very centre of our lives. To us, it was what a bar is to a drunk, or a church is to a bishop. Without it, there would have been little to live for.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Grim nutritionists may scoff at confectionary, but sometimes a quarter of midget gems is all the medicine we need when life isn’t so sweet.